by Laila Ujayli
In Cairo, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked his audience to accept the (false) “truth” that “America is a force for good in the Middle East” because ignoring it results in “bad choices.” However, the reverse is true.
The United States has not always been a force for good in the Middle East. It has made significant mistakes that have fundamentally changed the lives of millions. Remembering that reality would not weaken U.S. policy but strengthen it.
To accept Pompeo’s claim that the U.S. approach to the world post-9/11 did not cause Americans to abandon their ideals would be to accept torture, indefinite detention, and military occupation as American values. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died as a result of the Iraq War, adding to the already enormous death toll from the strict sanctions regime the United States imposed on Iraq following the Gulf War. From Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay, the United States has been far from a force for good in the wake of 9/11.
Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the consequences of U.S. actions were apparent. Violence destabilized the region, weakened institutions, and deprived people of fundamental needs. Contrary to Pompeo’s assertion, a diverse set of local grievances—ranging from the lack of economic opportunity to disenfranchisement and human rights abuses—primarily drive extremist recruitment, not ideology. And the United States did not just exacerbate those local grievances but often added to the pile. The so-called Islamic State (ISIS or IS) is an evil that the United States had no small role in creating through its invasion of Iraq.
Pompeo skips that chapter of history. And just as the secretary of state neglects the legacy of the Iraq War, he fails to reflect on the cost of “liberating” territories from IS control. He insults the more than a thousand civilians killed in the fight against IS by claiming that life has returned to normal in Iraq and Syria. Cities like Raqqa and Mosul lie in ruins, largely from U.S. airstrikes that, for example, destroyed 80 percent of Raqqa during its “liberation.” When it comes to the militarized U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, liberation and destruction too often go hand in hand.
Iran emerges as the primary villain of Pompeo’s speech and seemingly Trump’s entire foreign policy these days. In all the time Pompeo takes to vilify the current Iranian regime, he fails to mention that it was created to cast aside an authoritarian leader the United States helped install and prop up. The CIA ended Iran’s efforts to become a secular democracy by orchestrating the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh in order to return a pro-American dictator to power, spurring the discontent that eventually led to the 1979 revolution. Had the United States acted as a force for good in 1953, and not for its own self-perceived interest, Iran might look very different today.
Rather than liberation, arming and empowering authoritarians at the expense of the people continues to be a staple of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. From Saudi Arabia to Egypt, the United States has remained silent about human rights abuses for the sake of “stability” (thanks to this exact preference for propping up authoritarians, the Arab Revolutions blindsided Washington in 2011—so much for so-called stability). And Pompeo continues this failed practice in his speech. He praised governments like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and Egypt, which by no means offer freedom or democracy to their citizens, and refrained from even mentioning their dismal human rights records, which contribute to the ongoing instability facing the region today.
These mistakes are only a few of many. Though Pompeo shamelessly refuses to learn from these wrong decisions, their examination is vital to ensuring that they are not repeated. Unlike Pompeo, Americans should be ashamed when U.S. airstrikes kill families and destroy cities, when bombs manufactured by American companies murder children in Yemen, and when the regimes Washington elevates as allies oppress, dismember, and deny their citizens basic human rights.
That shame proves that this country’s moral compass still operates and that there are limits to U.S. power. To abandon that shame and accept as a fundamental “truth” Pompeo’s falsehood that the United States has been a force for good in the Middle East amounts to nothing short of blind revisionism.
Americans must study their history of involvement in the Middle East with critical eyes. In those chapters, there are moments when the United States has served as a force for good, or at least aspired to. But there are many chapters where the United States has fallen short—in some cases significantly. By refusing to accept responsibility for and learn from American mistakes in the Middle East, Pompeo sets the United States on the disastrous course toward repeating them.
Laila Ujayli is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at Win Without War. She specializes in the human impact of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @lailaujayli.